Sunday, July 26, 2009

Ralph and Ken's Bear

I taught with Ralph Henson for many years in the wilds of the San Juan Ridge. I am the "Ken" in this story. We were teaching eighth grade that year, and we took the class on a field trip to Yosemite. (His idea, not mine. I would have gone to Reno. Everyone needs to know about fleshpots.) We had hiked from the valley floor to a camp site near the foot of Half Dome by a flowing river.

The kids set up their tents near a fire pit while Ralph and I set up our tents by the river. We camped there two nights. On the first of them a bear snuffled at my tent and I reflected on what a poor barrier a nylon dome tent made against a determined bear. Or even a negligent one. I also said a prayer of thanks that I didn't have any Fritos with me.

But the next night provided Ralph and me with our brightest, shiningest hour. We had climbed Half Dome that day, and then climbed back down again. What else are you going to do? We were all fairly tired. Ra;lph and I retired to our tents as the kids began to turn in. A few stayed by the diminishing camp fire to tell ghost stories. It looked like the end of a good day.

I hadn't been secured in my nylon mushroom for very long when I heard a whisper. “Ralph. Ralph.”

Ralph and I both came out of our tents to see what was amiss, and there stood Jolene, one of our eighth grade girls, let's call her Karen. “Ralph,” she continued at the whisper, “there's a bear in our camp.” And just to verify her story, a bear stood up behind the girl. The bear, a female, had left two cubs behind to terrorize the children's camp while she followed Karen.

Ralph, thinking quickly, picked up some pine cones and threw them at the bear, shouting, “Go away! Go away!” The bear decided we didn't have any bacon and were very rude besides, and went away.

Meanwhile, Karen bowed her head and said, “All right, Ralph,” and slowly turned away. It made perfect sense to her that she could come to Ralph and complain about a bear in camp and he would throw pine cones at her and tell her to go away. That Ralph. Sometimes he was in such a bad mood. By the time she had turned around, the bear had gone. Karen never knew the bear was there.

Ralph and I took off for the kids' camp armed with nothing more than good intentions. Authorities recommend we don't shoot bears but frighten them away with noise, like banging sauce pans with wooden spoons. We didn't have a sauce pan and wooden spoon. I don't know what we thought we were going to do.

When we arrived at the kid's camp, what a sight greeted our eyes. The she bear and her cubs wandered around the camp as though they owned it. Four girls jumped up and down on a fallen tree shouting, “Bear, bear, bear.” Two boys climbed a tree, but the tree was so small that the top bent down. Josh, the unfortunate bottom boy, kept hitting the bear with his own bottom. Fortunately, this confused rather than irritated the bear.

Many of the other campers, meanwhile, ran around like Keystone Kops, running into each other, cursing, screaming. One boy, Kyle, who had retired early, came out of his tent wondering what all the uproar was. Daniel decided to settle some old scores and smacked Kyle in the nose with bloody, satisfactory results. There was Kyle bleeding all over the place and people were screaming, “My God, the bear got Kyle!” Actually, the only thing the bear got was the marshmallows in Kyle's backpack. He had to carry his stuff back home in a trash bag. He did not have a good day.

And through it all, three sleeping beauties, eighth grade girl children who had brought some funny looking cigarettes with them, slept peacefully through the whole affair. “Bears? What bears?” they asked the next morning.

Amid all the pandemonium, the bear decided that she wasn't going to find any bacon anywhere and she really didn't want to have her cubs hanging around eighth graders anyway. She and her tribe left leaving behind 25 bug-eyed kids and a trashed backpack. And everybody had a good bear story to tell.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bear Scat

Back in '86 and '87 I taught 2nd and 3rd grades at tiny Malakoff School. One of the really neat things about working at Malakoff School was our location, east o' the sun and west o' the moon. This meant, among other things, that I didn’t have to constantly ask permission in triplicate every time I wanted to take the class for a walk. In the spring, after the snow melt and the dogwood blossoms burst, we spent many afternoons just walking around in the woods. If pressed, I’d call it P.E. or science – but nobody ever pressed.

And there were such wonderful places to walk. To the east, through the Optimist Camp grounds lay the old “potato farm.” I don’t know what it really was, but an old cabin and an old garage were slowly rotting into the ground at one end of a large meadow. Maybe somebody actually grew potatoes there. Maybe it was an old homestead once owned by Hiram and Clara Potato. As you looked at the old buildings, you could really let your imagination run wild.

Or we could hike south along Humbug Creek. The trail crossed the creek twice on the skeletons of two ancient bridges. Twin 12 by 12 beams spanned the creek and the heads of rusted 20-penny spikes peeped up here and there, but the boards which lay across the beams and furnished the floor of the bridge had long since vanished. When the first-graders first attempted to cross on the beams, they did so on their hands and knees. But after a few attempts, they skipped over like everyone else.

My personal favorite walk was to the west. We’d cross onto California state park land and skirt a meadow that used to graze livestock. A spring fed a concrete basin with water year round and, if we could just keep still long enough, we might see a representative of the wild community come in for a drink. It never happened with us. Keep seven- and eight-year olds still? Maybe on some other planet.

If we followed trail down, we’d come near the old townsite of Derbec. There’s nothing there now but the remnants of someone’s apple orchard. Beyond the apple trees we could find a small lake, really a pond. It froze over in winter and we could send a log out to the middle and try to slide rocks and hit the log. Or in spring, we could float a log out to the middle and try to hit it with rocks. This was so much more interesting than watching Sleeping Beauty on videotape.

One spring afternoon our entire student body, all 14 first-, second- and third-graders, walked to our pond. Along the way we found a large pile of bear scat right in the middle of our trail. It was a large pile, about the size of an NFL football. Using the deductive powers of a trained mind, I concluded that the large pile of bear scat had been left there by a large bear. I noticed that the scat was very fresh. So I concluded that the bear might still be nearby.

We walked on to the pond clustered closely together, as though we were bungeed. We were hoping the bear might be unable to decide which juicy kid to eat first, and starve before it made up its mind. When we got to the pond, we saw a huge track where the bear had gotten a drink. I made another Holmesian deduction: the bear was a female. I could tell by the little bear track right beside the big bear track where a cub had also gotten a drink. I made one other deduction from the available evidence. I deduced it was time to return to the classroom. Do you see how all these deductions leap to the trained mind?

(A really well trained mind would have returned to the classroom after finding the bear scat, and not pressed on to the pond.)

We did not see the bear on our way back to school, and the next morning I made a plaster cast of her paw print. The kids used the cast to make their own paws and we did bear math, bear art, read and wrote bear stories, and the whole thing worked out exactly as I’d planned.